40 Million Uninsured Face Greatest Risk

(Washington, DC) The head of the American Public Health Association warned the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that our nation is sorely unprepared for a bioterrorism attack and would be dramatically affected because of a large segment of underserved populations. These remarks were offered at a recent Commission briefing on the civil rights implications of bioterrorism.

According to Dr. Mohammad N.Akhter, 40 million uninsured Americans are the most vulnerable in the event of a biological disaster or bioterrorist attack. Substance abusers, minorities and residents of rural communities are underserved by local public health systems which lack mechanisms to serve them should an emergency occur. Dr. Akhter's presentation to the Commission on disparities in the health care system was spurred by concern over the still unresolved anthrax mail attacks.

"Health departments are inadequate across the country," Dr. Akhter stated. "Individuals who live in rural areas and many who live in inner-cities lack access to health care, even when they have full insurance coverage." Noting that the federal government's plans for a bioterrorist attack also are inadequate, Dr. Akhter cautioned, "A terrorist attack will further exacerbate the difficulties of the uninsured...in obtaining any type of health care services." As a result, the level of casualties among the members of this group and the public at-large would be considerable.

Dr. Akhter also pointed out that providing sustained health care to underserved populations during an emergency would be a serious challenge to the nation's health care system. He suggested the government needs to develop consistent protocols and reach out to vulnerable communities with assurances that their needs would be met regardless of their ability to pay for health care.

"This conversation with Dr. Akhter is the beginning of our exploration into how communities across racial and economic lines would fare if confronted by a public health emergency," explained Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry.